The government of Myanmar warned student demonstrators Friday “action will be taken” to restore order in the country if they do not end a protest march to the commercial capital Yangon against education legislation they say will limit academic freedom.
The special announcement, issued through state media, came days after the government agreed in principle to student demands on the National Education Law and had requested an end to the protests. Students, however, pledged to continue marching until parliament approves the reforms.
“People are still marching toward Yangon, and in order to avoid undesirable problems and for the security of the country, the rule of law, and peace in the neighborhoods, actions will be taken in accordance with the law to deter the marchers from entering Yangon Region,” the statement said.
The government did not provide details of what action would be taken, though large numbers of security personnel had previously been deployed at points along the route from Myanmar’s second largest city Mandalay to Yangon and could be used to confront or arrest the students.
Hundreds of students from across the country have been marching to Yangon since Jan. 20, demanding that the government amend the National Education Law, passed last September, which they say is too restrictive.
The students are protesting the legislation’s centralized control of the curriculum, ban of student and teacher unions, and lack of education spending increases.
The main group of students, from Mandalay, has stopped for the night in Bago region’s Paungde township, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Yangon, after having completed nearly two-thirds of its journey.
The Associated Press quoted a protester named Win Tin as saying marchers were “surprised by the announcement.”
On Wednesday, the government and lawmakers agreed to include students and other education professionals in referendums and education law drafts during four-way talks that also included students and representatives of the Network for National Education Reform (NNER)—an organization consisting of educational, political and religious groups.
They also agreed to allow students to freely form unions, promised not to arrest students and their supporters who have participated in the reform movement, and abolished central control over the education system.
Lawmakers pledged to raise the national budget allocation for education to at least 20 percent in five years and also agreed to implement an education system that includes ethnic minority languages in accordance with student demands that minorities be allowed to freely learn their own language.
A member of NNER who took part in the talks told RFA Wednesday that the terms of the agreement would be submitted to parliament and students would continue with their march until they had been approved.
Students released a statement Friday saying the march would continue despite the government threat, according to the Irrawaddy online journal.
“If Parliament’s decision is not satisfactory, we will march in protest to Rangoon, and if it is satisfactory, we will walk to Rangoon in a show of victory,” the students’ statement read.
The Irrawaddy quoted Min Thwe Thit of the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE), which is spearheading the march, expressing doubts about the government’s commitment to reforming the law.
“The public are worried and ask us why we don’t stop our protest, and I want to explain to them that we only have an agreement [in principle] and have not officially seen our demands met.”
The march has attracted growing numbers of students and Buddhist monks, and also counts many supporters from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which is expected to make a strong showing in elections slated for later this year.
The threat of an expanded protest is sensitive in Myanmar, where in 1988 a student-led pro-democracy movement was crushed by the former junta.
A delegation of protesting students met with Aung San Suu Kyi Thursday at her home in the capital Naypyidaw to discuss their demands related to amending the National Education Law, local media reported.
The Nobel laureate and opposition lawmaker said she would relay the students’ concerns to parliament, but reminded them that it was unreasonable to expect all of their demands would be met in a country operating as a democracy.
Myanmar’s education system is still recovering from decades of neglect under military rule, when the government clamped down on academic independence and freedom because the ruling generals viewed the nation’s universities with suspicion.
A fourth round of four-way talks on the controversial education law is scheduled for Saturday.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.